The Long Blue Line: Reliance—historic, revolutionary and OPC namesake

The Revenue Cutter Service purchased the first Reliance at the start of the Civil War. Since then, the service has commissioned three cutters bearing the namesake “Reliance.” Soon, the fifth cutter to bear the name Reliance as one of the Coast Guard’s newest 360-foot Offshore Patrol Cutters. Learn more about Reliance’s distinguished history in this week’s Long Blue Line blog.


This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

This black and white photo shows newly the commissioned Reliance (WMEC-615) with an HH-52 helicopter landing on its helicopter pad and davits down with one of its small boats deployed. Notice the lack of smokestack and paint scheme pre-dating the Racing Stripe or “U.S. Coast Guard” paint schemes. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

[Cutter] Reliance will enhance the Coast Guard’s humanitarian mission of ensuring the safety of all men at sea and the ships they sail in regardless of the flags they fly. She will give added stamina to the Coast Guard’s ceaseless vigil in safeguarding our sea frontiers against law-breakers and illegal entries, and she will stand ready to serve our naval forces in time of armed conflict.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

In 1964, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the medium-endurance cutter Reliance (WMEC-615). This 210-foot cutter has served the nation for over 55 years. During that time, Reliance has performed the missions of search and rescue, national defense, international engagement, migrant interdiction, maritime safety and security, port and coastal security, regulating living marine resources and preventing drug smuggling.

Reliance is named for an inspirational trait of dependability. The first cutter named Reliance was a 100-foot steam-powered tugboat. The Revenue Cutter Service purchased Reliance and two other tugs for $9,000 apiece at the start of the Civil War. The service received the cutter in August 1861 and it served through 1865. During the war, Reliance operated out of Baltimore mainly as a blockade enforcement ship in Chesapeake Bay. The cutter also served as a convoy escort and a troop transport for Union landing parties along the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

The second cutter named “Reliance” was a 110-foot topsail schooner. Built in Baltimore, and commissioned in June 1867, Reliance II was one of the last strictly sail-powered cutters in the Revenue Cutter Service. The cutter sailed around Cape Horn for San Francisco where it deployed on Bering Sea Patrols off the coast of Alaska. Reliance II was only the third cutter deployed to the new territory for law enforcement cruises. The duties of the Bering Sea Patrol were hard on wooden ships and the cutter only remained in service for eight years before it was decommissioned and sold in 1875.

This aerial photograph of sister-cutter Vigilant shows the original helipad and superstructure arrangement lacking smokestack and enabling 360-degree visibility from the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Commissioned in 1927, the third Reliance was a 125-foot Active-Class patrol boat assigned to New York. As part of Prohibition’s Offshore Patrol Force, the cutter’s missions included law enforcement, search and rescue, and the interdiction of illegal liquor off American shores. In 1933, Congress repealed the 18th Amendment, so Reliance III was detailed to Norfolk, Virginia, where the cutter was homeported until 1935. That year, the cutter was transferred to Honolulu and rearmed for possible combat operations in December 1940. In 1941, the cutter was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and on Dec. 7, Reliance III became one of the first U.S. warships to see combat action in World War II. The cutter fired on Japanese aircraft until they withdrew. The cutter continued to perform wartime duty in the Pacific until 1946. That year the cutter was transferred to Cordova, Alaska, and performed law enforcement and search and rescue missions for a year. Reliance III was decommissioned in 1947 and sold out of the service in 1948.

Today’s Reliance is the first of the 210-foot medium-endurance cutter fleet and its class’s namesake cutter. In 1962, Commandant Edwin Roland presided over Reliance IV’s keel laying at the Houston, Texas-based Todd Shipyard. The cutter was stationed in Corpus Christi after its 1964 commissioning and remained there until 1975. The cutter’s duties included offshore oilrig inspections, fisheries and marine pollution patrols, and search and rescue. During Reliance IV’s long career, it has been homeported in Yorktown, Virginia; Port Canaveral, Florida; and New Castle, New Hampshire. Presently based out of Kittery, Maine, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Reliance patrols Atlantic waters from the eastern coast of Canada to the northern tip of South America. Its many duties include the enforcement of laws and treaties, fisheries patrols, migrant interdiction, drug interdiction, safety inspections, and search and rescue.

In addition to its distinguished career, Reliance IV occupies a unique place in Coast Guard history. Reliance was the first cutter built as part of the service’s post-World War II fleet revitalization. From World War II through the 1950s, the Coast Guard had re-purposed surplus Navy ships, so Reliance was the first purpose-built cutter laid down and commissioned after World War II. With the exception of the Wind-Class icebreakers, Reliance marked the first new Coast Guard cutter construction since the 1930s.

Reliance in dry-dock after application of the Racing Stripe and installation of new engines and smokestack. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Navy’s Office of Naval Architecture and Engineering designed the Reliance-Class to perform traditional Coast Guard missions and support Navy operations in case the Cold War heated-up. Thus, the Reliance and its sister cutters were designed with a 3-inch deck gun and mounts for 40mm cannons, and anti-submarine weapons and equipment. The Reliance-Class also came equipped with state-of-the-art navigation and communications technology and controllable-pitch propellers. Moreover, Reliance was the first cutter equipped with a combination diesel and gas (CODAC) powerplant that drove the cutter at speeds of up to 20 knots, so it could tow a 10,000-ton vessel or keep pace with Navy carrier fleets.

The Reliance-Class featured superior comfort and habitability for the crew with the first use of air conditioning on a cutter. In addition, the famed industrial design firm of Loewy-Snaith, Inc. (designers of the Coast Guard Racing Stripe logo) worked with the Coast Guard Design Branch to design and decorate all interior spaces, including all furniture, light fixtures, pictures and frames, upholstery fabric, curtains, tiles, vinyl flooring, and all other materials and finishes in crew spaces.

Reliance was also the most advanced U.S. vessel of its day with an all welded steel hull and an aluminum superstructure to minimize top-heaviness. The Reliance-Class was the first fleet of cutters designed with a flight deck for helicopter operations. To provide 360-degree bridge visibility and oversight of flight operations, the cutter’s designers redirected powerplant exhaust through stern pipes thereby eliminating the need for a smokestack. However, the CODAG system proved inefficient, so Reliance and the next five cutters in-class were re-engined to a twin diesel powerplant in the late 1980s. During this conversion, a smokestack was added enlarging the superstructure and reducing the size of the helicopter pad.

Cutter Reliance underway today in the Western Caribbean. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Coast Guard will soon build the “Heritage”-Class of 360-foot Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs). Reliance (WMSM-925) will be the 11th in the first flight of OPCs and the fifth service vessel to bear this distinguished name. Reliance V and its OPC sister cutters will become the mainstay of the Coast Guard’s ocean-going fleet fulfilling the service’s maritime security and safety missions. For more information on the OPCs, check the Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate’s Offshore Patrol Cutters web page.

In its 55 years of service to the nation, Reliance has received countless honors. These awards include numerous service commendations, medals, and special operations ribbons. Firmly rooted in its long list of accomplishments, the history of its distinguished predecessor vessels and its revolutionary design, Reliance continues to live up to its motto of “First in the Fleet.”

The official crest of cutter Reliance. (U.S. Coast Guard)

6 comments on “The Long Blue Line: Reliance—historic, revolutionary and OPC namesake”

  1. I am one of the former Captains in RELIANCE. This interesting article mentions that the Commandant at the time was Admiral Edwin Roland. What it does not say is that his wife, Jane Fitch Roland, was her sponsor. When I was her Captain, she still had in the Title B inventory her gift to the ship, a silver tea set. I hope that it is still being passed from Captain to Captain, and when she is decommissioned, it will go to the next RELIANCE in the long and honored line.

    By the time I relieved her, the gas turbines had been removed, and she was thus slowed to 18 knots. I was her Captain who moved her home port from Corpus to Yorktown. She, like her sisters, all had some shiphandling challenges. For the crews, they were all not the most seakindly Cutters in the fleet. Under varying conditions of loading, they could roll, pitch, yaw, heave and hang on a roll, with a distinct snap when coming back up, do this all at the same time, and with great enthusiasm. She was the only ship in which I served that required careful attention as to which tanks to draw fuel, especially with a helicopter embarked. Further, because of the small size of the flight deck, and the pitch and roll limitations, aircraft ops were often a real challenge. These required flight deck crews and LSOs who were highly trained, FAST, and brave. There sometimes were no second chances. It is a tribute to the aircraft commanders, the flight deck crews and LSOs and the Captains who trained them the we have had few accidents in flight operations. To my knowledge, these were the first ships in any service in the world to handle aircraft on such small decks in such wx conditions.

    As with all six of my Cutter commands, I loved RELIANCE. She, however, was the hardest to love, I crossdecked to her from UNIMAK, who had only one bad habit. That was that she was direct reversing, and the engines had to be stopped and restarted in reverse to answer backing bells. This starting and restarting was with air, and in training JOs in shiphandling, the EWO delighted in telling the bridge that there were only a few backing bells left. RELIANCE had bridge control of those CP wheels, but all of her other propensities had to be constantly in the minds of her Captains.

    I am delighted that two of my commands, RELIANCE and INGHAM, are to be continued in the service of our nation in the Offshore Patrol Cutter fleet.
    Captain Joe

    1. What nice history Captain!
      My Captain in 70-71 was Commander Paul Anderson… What a good Captain he was.. Even during his Captain Mast he listened to all sides of the stories.
      As you know he passed away at an early age to cancer…
      I live in Camp Hill Pennsylvania.. I was in a Panara’s in CH.. I was wearing a CG wind breaker. A young lady behind me asked me: “Were you in the CG?” Me: “Yes”. She said her “my dad was an officer in the Coast Guard!” I said ” what was his name?” she said Anderson!” I said: “Paul?” she said “yes”.. I told her: “Paul Anderson was my CO on the Reliance!” She started to cry!!!!!!!!!!!!! She was 12 years old when I was 22 years old on the Reliance in Corpus Christi Texas. We sat down and I try to buy her meal but all she wanted was a cup of coffee. We talked about Reliance, her dad, and Corpus Christi, Texas. She was an X FBI agent now living in the Pennsylvania area…

      The Reliance… I lost the tip of my finger on the Reliance 250 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.. Fire in the turbines… Someone chopped the tip off as I was going thru the heavy door up on the bridge to put my sound power phones on for GQ. they had to Medevac me 250 miles out in the gulf to Public Health NOLA…So this this day I now have a pointed finger as a memory of the Reliance. thr fire was put out within second in the turbines.. Capt wanted the corpsman to sew my finger up.. The bone was exposed so corpsman told him Nope Capt can’t do it to bad..

      I took my girl friend on the Reliance in Corpus Christi in 1971.. 46 year later that girl friend is now my wife and we get to go on the Reliance in 2016 46 years later.

      If feasible to tell.. I wonder if Reliance 4 will end up as a addition to a reef or will a foreign country own her? I do miss the Reliance so! Wish I could have spent my 4 years on as her SK..

  2. Further to my last, glad am I that the engine exhausts were finally routed up through proper stacks. RELIANCE, like all of my Cutters, talked to me, as she did and does even today to all of her Captains who would listen. One of her complaints was the constant fouling of her stern, by those wet exhausts.

    Captain Joe

    1. I remember we were going on some drills.. her Pitch went out on her and we had to return to the dock to get it fixed by the Eng.. Also one time on underway training at Norfolk the Pitch went out and we knocked down the Jack flag staff on a Navy Destroyer. Captain Anderson had to go over and talk to the CO of the destroyer…

  3. If the ole girl could only talk! Things she has seen. What an adventure for a 21 year old. I’m 70 now. I wish I served my full enlistment on her. 13 months of my 4 years. Now the Reliance that was the Coast Guard. We will miss you. May Reliance 5 continue the Reliance Ttaditions of all previous Reliance’s . You have to go out but you don’t have to come back. Semper Paratus.

  4. A great story by James about Captain Anderson’s daughter. It is always interesting when these chance contacts happen, and memories come flooding back.

    Another RELIANCE story. When I brought her to Yorktown, her hull designation was changed to WTR 615, she was funded by the Reserve Program, and her mission list expanded to be the training ship for the Officer Candidate School. In order to accommodate lady Officer Candidates, we had to convert the CPO berthing to female OCS berthing. This was not conducive to a happy Chief’s Mess, and yet there were no other alternatives. On one OCS cruise, we had a major SAR case, where RELIANCE was On Scene Commander, with a helicopter embarked. We were searching about 200 NM off Cape Hatteras, in bad and further deteriorating wx. I launched inside the pitch and roll limitations, and had to recover outside them. The aircraft commander, the LSO, and the crew in the nets worked together to bring in that machine on the first cut, in a magnificent piece of airmanship and deck work. One slip, not hitting the grid just right, machine, aircrew, and deck crew could all have been lost.

    There must be hundreds of similar stories in the 210 fleet. There could be a great book written about just these Cutters, all of their adventures, and all of the Cuttermen who took them to sea.

    Captain Joe

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